Senate Republicans on Wednesday accused the heads of Facebook, Google and Twitter of using their content moderation policies to censor conservatives while Democrats slammed their GOP colleagues for holding a “sham” hearing less than a week before Election Day.
The Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing with Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Sundar Pichai of Google and Jack Dorsey of Twitter had been billed by Republican leaders of the committee as a discussion of possible changes to a 1996 law that protects technology companies from lawsuits related to third-party content posted on their platforms.
But mentions of the law, known as Section 230, and questions about what changes, if any, the companies might support paled in comparison to GOP criticisms of specific content moderation decisions, namely how Facebook and Twitter handled the New York Post’s recent Hunter Biden story, which raised doubts with fact-checkers and other news outlets.
“Who the hell elected you and put you in charge of what the media are allowed to report and what the American people are allowed to hear?” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, asked Dorsey.
Occasionally, personal gripes took center stage, like when Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., asked Pichai whether Google still employs an engineer who criticized her online.
Democrats ignored GOP allegations of anti-conservative bias and instead focused their questions on whether the companies are doing enough to curb the spread of disinformation, voter suppression, violent content and hate speech on their platforms.
But, like those asked by Republicans, their questions often deviated from the hearing’s stated intent.
Several Democrats accused Republicans of using the hearing to intimidate Zuckerberg, Dorsey and Pichai in the final days of the presidential race. In protest, Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, a co-sponsor of Section 230 overhaul legislation, opted against questioning the CEOs.
“There is a very good reason we don’t call people before us to yell at them for not doing our bidding during an election,” Schatz said. “It’s a misuse of taxpayer dollars.”
Schatz urged the executives not to let Republicans “bully you into carrying water for those who want to advance misinformation.”
Representatives for the technology industry have accused both parties of threatening changes to Section 230 in order to influence how they moderate content around Election Day.
Working the referees
“Both sides are trying to work the referees,” Carl Szabo, vice president of NetChoice, a group representing Facebook, Google and Twitter, told CQ Roll Call. “And by that I mean force or encourage online platforms to remove all content that shows them in a negative light while leaving up the content that they like.”
The hearing’s only major Section 230 news emerged before it even began, when advance testimony released by Facebook revealed that Zuckerberg would break from his fellow CEOs and endorse changes to the law.
“Section 230 made it possible for every major internet service to be built and ensured important values like free expression and openness were part of how platforms operate,” Zuckerberg said. “However, I believe Congress should update the law to make sure it’s working as intended.”
Zuckerberg said Facebook supports “the ideas around transparency and industry collaboration that are being discussed in some of the current bipartisan proposals” and urged Congress “to make sure that any changes do not have unintended consequences that stifle expression or impede innovation.”
Dorsey and Pichai maintained that the law should be preserved in order to allow companies to set their own content moderation policies and protect nascent startups from frivolous lawsuits.
Free speech advocates have also come to the law’s defense, arguing that culling its protections for social media companies would force more content moderation, not less.
“Blowing up Section 230 would be devastating for human rights and freedom of expression globally,” said Evan Greer, deputy director of the digital rights group Fight for the Future. “Poking holes in this law would open the floodgates for widespread internet censorship, and make it harder for websites to set community standards in the public interest.”
But Greer and other advocates are up against lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, not to mention federal law enforcement agencies as well as President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee seeking to replace him. Both men have called for a full repeal of Section 230, a more extreme position than most members of either party.
The bill introduced by Schatz with Senate Majority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., is seen by observers as taking a nuanced approach that stands the best shot at gaining widespread support on Capitol Hill and in Silicon Valley. The proposal would allow companies to retain their Section 230 protections as long as they publicly explain their content moderation decisions.
Another bill backed by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who chairs the Judiciary Committee, and Dianne Feinstein of California, the committee’s top Democrat, is seen as more heavy-handed because it would revoke Section 230 protections and force companies to earn them back through more strict content moderation.
The chances of either bill becoming law depends on whether rank-and-file lawmakers from both parties can establish common ground in their struggle against the technology companies.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who helped write Section 230, criticized the GOP’s approach to the hearing and expressed skepticism about the chances of overhauling the 1996 law.
“When it comes to writing laws usually you need two things — first, lawmakers need to agree on what the existing law says, and second, they need to know what problem the new law would solve,” Wyden said in a statement. “Today’s sad spectacle shows how far this body is from having a rational debate about how to make the internet a better place.”